How to Maintain Your Privacy on the Web

Some web sites use your surfing history to track your location and preferences. Learn how to protect your privacy.

Eric Escobar
4-minute read
Episode #5

Say you’re browsing the web for a new coffeemaker, when suddenly an ad pops up for your favorite shampoo, or that great book you recently read, or that couch you’re sitting on. Just kidding on that last one. Well, kind of…

Almost all large websites track your web browsing activity. They know the products you browse and where you’re browsing them. As creepy as it sounds to be virtually followed, sometimes it can be helpful.

In today’s podcast I will give you 3 Quick and Dirty tips on how to browse the internet safely and put you in charge of your information.

First off, every computer has a unique number, sort of like a phone number. This is called an IP address, and it makes sure that the information you are seeking on the internet gets delivered to your computer. When you connect to a website like Google or Facebook, it’s similar to calling someone on the phone. The website uses this IP address to create the connection to your computer. Also, like a phone number’s area code, an IP address can give the website a rough idea of your general location.

As for tracking the products you like or browse, well that is also pretty simple. If you are logged on to a site like eBay or Amazon, many of your preferences from these sites are saved on your account. But say you haven’t logged on to a site in a while, but the next time you go there you see a list of “recently viewed items.”  These are preferences saved in your computer as “cookies.” And just to debunk any wild accusations about cookies, they’re simply small text files that contain a few lines of text, so the next time you visit that website it already knows what you like.

So how could this be bad? Well, let’s see: Someone tracking where you are and what you’re looking at all the time... If that doesn’t scream Big Brother, then I don’t know what does! For instance, any website that has that tiny blue “like us on Facebook link” can see the cookie that Facebook leaves and from that it can tell Facebook what site you’re on and save that as an interest for advertising… and what’s even weirder is that you don’t even need to be logged onto Facebook for this to happen!

Here’s another example: Say you bought all your kids’ Christmas presents online. Later on that day, little Johnny uses the computer and visits that site only to see a list of “recently purchased items”! Forget the excitement of storing your gifts under the tree when your kid can just use a few clicks of a mouse to see what’s under the wrapping!

Cookies Can be a Good Thing

[[AdMiddle]But there is another side to the Big Brother conspiracy. This technology actually has many benefits.  For instance, when you search for pizza in Google, do you really care about the millions of pizza chains in the world, or would you rather only see the ones that are close enough to deliver to your house? What about when you buy a cookbook online, wouldn’t it be helpful if the website suggested a few other things that might go well with the cookbook, say oven mitts and a timer? Let’s not forget that the whole reason services like Facebook and Google are free is because of the ads that are targeted right at you.

So even though these companies keep vast amounts of your preferences and personal data, they also make things convenient, free, and customized just for you.

But what if you don’t want your online activity tracked? How can you protect your personal info and the secrecy of the presents under the tree? Here are 3 Quick and Dirty Tips to browse safely and securely:

  1. Many web browsers have a “private browsing option” that won’t keep cookies or history information while it’s enabled. Here’s how to turn it on in Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari

  2. Have your web browser set to automatically delete cookies when you close each internet session

  3. Turn off locations services in your browser

If you want to see step by step guides on how to do this check out the Tech Talker Facebook page.

Just a quick note, I could go into extreme technical detail about each one of these topics. If you want to know more about how web tracking or privacy works, send an email to techtalker@quickanddirtytips.com or post a question on my Facebook page.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker keeping technology simple.

Links:  Privacy Setting Options

Internet Explorer: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows-vista/InPrivate-frequently-asked-questions
Chrome: http://www.google.com/support/chrome/bin/answer.py?answer=95464
Firefox: http://support.mozilla.com/en-US/kb/Private%20Browsing
Safari: http://browsers.about.com/od/56/ss/safari-4-private-browsing.htm

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.